By Neil Simon
Directed by Nancy Curran Willis
Second Stage, at the New Repertory Theatre
Newton, MA through August 17, 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Nancy Curran Willis scored a real coup in getting the first area performance rights to Neil Simon's most recent Broadway comedy, the 1997 ''Proposals". Willis, who has plenty of experience and a fine reputation as a director in the local community theatres where Simon is a mainstay, is founding her new company, Second Stage, as a way for talented locals to move forward to the professional theatre of their dreams. The company is making a very classy debut in the borrowed New Rep space in the near suburb of Newton-- beginning with a theatre facility where the audience appreciates excellence, and one that has, if not all the amenities, enough of them to make producing and attending theatre within it a real pleasure. Back stage and on stage, Willis' non Equity company lives up to the high standard New Rep has led Newton audiences to expect.

Simon's play is set in Old Times: that is, the now nostalgic 1950's, outside a comfortable vacation cottage in the Poconos. Designer Susan Sanders has built a two story brown shingled bungalow with porch and garden, plus woods that come up to embrace the house before stretching off into serene leafy depths. It's the sort of place one longs to call home, a place where one can imagine trouble and responsibility melting away. But in the play, it is the place and the pastoral ideal it represents that are melting away. The narrator, Clemma (Joylette Portlock)-- Simon is stretching himself here, using a mature black female's point of view to tell his story about a Jewish family-- announces that she herself is dead, and that the cottage we see is a vision from the last summer she spent as the housekeeper and confidant of the family that summered in it until dissolved by divorce. The people we meet in the play will come in pairs, mostly-- but not all of them will be run through a maze of misapprehension towards happily ever after. Simon's melancholy framing device defines what is within it as set apart from some of the usual expectations of affirmative middle class comedy. Negotiations, banter, and bickering, yes: but not a laugh riot. The laughs are meant to lead to recognition and reconciliation.

Burt Hines (Fred Robbins) is a self made businessman who tirelessly built himself a small empire-- at the cost of his marriage. His wife, Annie,(Liz Robbins) was involved in Burt's business until it outgrew the mom-and-pop stage. After that, aside from raising their only child, Annie had nothing much to keep her occupied. She never stopped loving her husband: she simply lost patience with waiting for Burt to ease up on the work and come home to spend some time with her. When their daughter,, Josie, (Lara Hakeem) went off to college, Annie picked up and left to find a life for herself before it was too late. Shortly after the divorce, a heart attack forced Burt into retirement. He had to stop working and pay some long postponed attention to something other than business. Burt's prognosis isn't good-- Clemma tells us he will die within a year-- so he can't really start over. By now his ex wife has remarried and daughter Josie is angry at her mother and resentful of the breakup. Burt has been given a brief reprieve, but he may not be able to use it to mend matters with those he will leave behind when the summer ends.

Simon's play begins with Josie's breaking her engagement to her old friend Ken, a Harvard Law student (Tom Berry), in favor of his best friend and her previous flame, the economically challenged golf pro and novice novelist Ray (John Schnatterly). Then, as in the most predictable farce, everybody who ought not to meet shows up at the cottage in the Poconos. Three of Josie's suitors and the new girlfriend of two of them, Burt's ex, the housekeeper's husband (Cliff Odle) reappearing after a seven year absence-- from the corners of the earth these characters all make a bee-line for Burt's bungalow.

What I most liked about "Proposals" was its ease, its sense of going where it wanted to go instead of where narrative drive or comic momentum urged. The whole first act had a kind of freedom, as if familiar behavior was being seen with fresh eyes, more interested in understanding than in being in control. Part of this impression undoubtedly was due to the performances of the Robbins couple as the ex-Hines'. All of the divorced pair's interactions seemed to come out of a long and deep history as husband and wife, suddenly seen from a new perspective-- as I suppose they did, the actor- spouses having incorporated enough of their shared experience of marriage into their interpretations to achieve this unmatchable effect. I don't know what experience Lara Hakeem drew on to forge an almost equally deep bond as their daughter, but whatever it was, it worked beautifully.

I can't say that I was pleased by Simon's introduction of two outsiders to spice up the action of the play's second half, or of the director and cast's decision to underline rather than blur the stylistic differences between these characters and the sympathetically conceived inner circle. Not that I reject either character per se: Vinnie Bavasi of Miami Beach, a self consciously colorful and expansive member of a large and enterprising Italian family with mafia connections, would be a welcome addition to a madcap farce-- especially as played by Joseph Zamparelli, Jr, whose every tone and gesture proclaimed his mastery of comic exaggeration. In the pre established Chekhovian context of the pastoral Poconos, this wham bamming style effectively cut his Bavasi off from the milder sorts around him. Those actors' reactions were reduced to variations on "Is this guy for real?" Vinnie's female counterpart is a zaftig dazzler of a New York model, Sammii, who has been picked up on the rebound by Josie's golf pro intellectual dream boat, Ray. Sammii shares a kind of blurry blonde vulnerability and love of helpless animals with the era's premier sex goddess as portrayed in "The Misfits", and the similarities are underlined by Nicole Jesson's polka dot dress and Monroe wig. Jesson also added an annoying adenoidal edge to the bombshell's breathy little girl voice-- at least, it annoyed the hell out of me. In fact, this abrupt turn towards satire broke the threads of empathy that tied me to the play, and the scene where Sammii and Vinnie discover that they are soul mates made me so uncomfortable that if "Proposals" had been a movie I would have gone out in the lobby for popcorn until "that part" was over. I don't know whether this burlesque treatment of the 50's feminine ideal originated with the author or with the production, and I must admit that it was carried out with consummate skill. But I could barely restrain myself from standing up in my seat and yelling "Don't DO that!

What's amazing is that author, director and actors navigated the production through the same sort of treacherous waters successfully when dealing with the other "outsider" relationship in Simon's play, the one between an African-American husband and wife. Joylette Portlock took some stereotypical patterns and combined them with closely observed bits of individuality to create a subtly shaded and deeply felt portrait of a remarkable woman. I assume that most of the elements in her portrayal of Clemma came from observation, since MIT biology major Portlock seems unlikely to share much more than basic humanity with an uneducated middle aged domestic from the Jim Crow post W.W.II South. Cliff Odle, who plays in a rock band in his other life, also took on along with his gray hair spray a great weight of age and pain and trouble to play the smaller role of Clemma's errant husband. Between them these talented youngsters managed to endow their spousal relationship with a complex and difficult history, equal to the long married Hines'. The pair's timing, too, was exquisite-- each joke part of a process of discovery. Here, I think, "Proposals" achieved its promise of the kind of interlocking metaphors that glow in Shakespeare's bittersweet late comedies: "Pardon's the word for all."